“With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?”Oscar Wilde
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, the poet and playwright, was born on the 16th of October, 1854, in Dublin, Ireland. His father, William R.W. Wilde, was one of Ireland’s leading ear and eye surgeons. His mother was a poet who published under the pen name of Speranza. She was celebrated for her English translation of Wilhelm Meinhold’s Sidonia the Sorceress. Born into an intellectual family, Wilde excelled in school and earned a scholarship to Trinity College in Dublin before continuing his studies at Oxford.
Wilde was flamboyant and witty, a beloved personality in his day. He became well known in the aesthetic and decadent movements, taking great care with his elaborate dress and furnishings. Many of his quotes have become common parlance today.
In mid-1881, at 27 years old, he published his first collection, Poems. Though the book sold out its first print run of 750 copies, it was not generally well-received by the critics
In 1884 Wilde married Constance Mary Lloyd, a writer and proponent of women’s rights and the ‘rational dress’ movement. They had two sons, Cyril, born in 1885, and Vyvyan, born in 1886.
Wilde’s book of children’s stories, The Happy Prince and Other Stories was published by David Nutt in London in 1888. His wife published her own children’s book, There Was Once: Grandma’s Stories, in 1888 as well.
The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde’s only novel, now considered a classic, was published in 1890.
In 1891 Intentions, called ‘an early modernist manifesto,’ was published. A book of essays on art, literature, criticism, it espoused the Aesthetic ideal of Art for Art’s sake, not for teaching morals as some critics in the day believed it should be.
In 1891 Wilde began a relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, a young aristocrat, described as spoiled and vain. Wilde was 37 and Douglas, whom Wilde called ‘Bosie,’ was 21, an Oxford undergraduate and talented poet. It is evident through Wilde’s letters, compiled in Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters, that he was madly in love with Douglas, even after the ensuing drama that left him destitute and, eventually, dead.
In the early 1890s Wilde found great success as a playwright. His first play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, premiered in February 1892, and was a big success. An Ideal Husband, opened in January 1895 to an audience that included the Prince of Wales, and was also very successful. The Importance of Being Earnest was performed at the St. James Theatre a month later.
Salome: A One Act Tragedy was first written in French in 1891, before being translated to English three years later. Lord Alfred Douglas first attempted to translate the play, but reportedly botched the translation so badly Wilde had to fix it. This revision was published in 1894. It was lavishly and famously illustrated by Audrey Beardsley, and Wilde dedicated it “To my friend Lord Alfred Douglas, the translator of my play.” Because it depicted Bible characters, it was banned from England and first produced in Paris in 1896, although Wilde was imprisoned by then, and did not see it in production.
Wilde was tragically brought down at the height of his success because of his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas. A feud between Wilde and Douglas’ father, the Marquess of Queensbury, erupted, and the Marquess left a card calling Wilde a “”posing Somdomite.” Wilde sued for libel, with Douglas’ urging, at which point the Marquess got him arrested for gross indecency with other men. After two damaging trials, Wilde was sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labor. During his imprisonment he wrote a De Profundis – a 50,000 word-long letter, to Douglas. The autobiographical work, exploring their relationship, Douglas’ hatred for his father, and the artist’s search for meaning in suffering. It would be later published, five years after Wilde’s death.
After his arrest in 1895, his wife Constance and sons fled to Genoa and changed their surname to Holland.
Against all warnings from loved ones and friends, Douglas and Wilde reunited after he was released from jail, trying for a fresh start in Naples. Wilde wrote:“He understands me and my art, and loves both…He has also ruined my life, so I can’t help loving him.”
Their reunion didn’t last, and Wilde exiled himself to Paris while Douglas returned to England, striking out against Wilde bitterly. Wilde was heartbroken and dispirited, virtually penniless and living in low-grade hotels. In mid-1897, he wrote his famous poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” It was published in 1898 under the name “C.3.3.” The first edition, of 800 copies, sold out within a week. By the 7th printing in 1899, Wilde’s name appeared on the cover. The poem brought him a small income for the remaining years of his life.
His estranged wife, Constance, died on the 7th of April, 1898, at the age of 40, following a surgery.
Oscar Wilde died in Paris, on the 30th of November, 1900, at the age of 46. Although Arthur Ransome cited syphilis as the cause of his deal in his 1912 biography on Wilde, later researchers concluded that it was a tumor in Wilde’s middle ear causing out-of-control infections that eventually killed him. This is ironic, given that his father was one of Ireland’s leading ear and eye surgeons (his father passed away in 1876).
Wilde was initially buried in a pauper’s cemetery, but moved nine years later to Pere Lachaise.
Lesson from Wilde
Today we can’t be jailed for same sex relationships and advances in medicine would make ear infections easily treatable before they escalated to deadly. But toxic obsessive relationships and petty fights can just as easily distract and destroy as they could back then. Focus on the good, the flowers the books, the beauty, the moon. The freedoms that you harbor in your soul no matter your circumstances. Wilde knew this in his core.